You’ve likely seen those viral videos of the just-born puppies trying out their howls for the first time. Howling is a natural part of canine life and behavior, although some dogs do it far more often than others.
While their breed, age, temperament, and environment may play a minor role, why do dogs howl? We have five of the most common reasons your dog may howl and what (if anything) you can do about it.
How Do Dogs Howl?
The cuddliest lap dog and the most ferocious guard dog have one thing in common — they both descended from wolves. It took a lot of steps to take them from Canis lupus to Canis familiaris, but the ancestral DNA is evident when you compare many of their intrinsic social behaviors.
One of the ways our dogs take after their lupine counterparts is their ability to howl. Like barking and growling, howling is a vocalization that dogs use to communicate. The same anatomy is responsible for all of these sounds — the larynx (also known as the “voice box”).
Inside the larynx are the vocal cords, two muscular bands that open and close to protect the lungs from aspiration. The vocal cords also vibrate when air moves through them, which helps your dog communicate with you and its packmates.
The amount of force combined with frequency determines the type of vocalization your dog is able to make. For example, barking occurs at a fairly high frequency, usually above 1000 Hz. Howling is more diverse and can vary from 150 to more than 1000 Hz, as dogs can do it quietly or extremely loudly, depending on the situation.
Why Do Dogs Howl?
Until we invent a device that lets us directly translate what our pets are trying to tell through their barks and howls, we have to rely on researchers, veterinarians, and animal behaviorists in interpret. Luckily, there is plenty of research behind why they may perform this behavior and what it may mean.
So, why do dogs howl? We have five of the most likely reasons.
Dogs Howl To Communicate With Other Dogs
Our dogs may be far removed from their wild ancestors, but they are still driven by many of the same urges. Before they were tamed, wolves only communicated with other wolves. If they did encounter a human, they weren’t sticking around to try to talk to them; they were either fighting or, most likely, running in the opposite direction.
At its core, howling is a vocalization meant to communicate with other members of the same species when left alone. Howling dogs may make these loud noises as a way of reaching other pack members, especially if they are outside of the visual range a long distance away.
Our dogs don’t often go out on hunting expeditions on their own anymore, but they still have the same urge to call out for their pack when separated. An example of this is if you notice your dog howling when you arrive home at work.
Although there is some controversy about whether dogs see us as part of the pack, there’s no doubt that they have become attached to us (and vice versa). Many dogs deal with at least some separation anxiety when they’re away from their pet parents, especially for more extended amounts of time. They may be howling as a way to call you back home.
Dogs Howl When They’re Sick
Another reason dogs may howl is to communicate that they’re not feeling well, although it may not be a conscious response. If your ordinarily quiet dog suddenly starts to howl or bark without any apparent outside stimuli, it may be that something is going on internally that’s causing them to cry out.
We recommend contacting your veterinarian as soon as possible. In many cases, this is an emergency situation and shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Some dogs, especially dog breeds known for being more vocal (like huskies or beagles), also howl to express their emotional distress. Dogs who are feeling anxious may use howling as a way not only to communicate that they are stressed but to burn off some of that nervous energy.
Howling is usually combined with other forms of vocalization — baying, barking, groaning, etc. — to let everyone around them know how they feel.
Dogs Howl To Get Your Attention
Even with the best intentions, domestic dogs can pick up bad habits. For some dogs, one of these habits is howling to get your attention. They may be howling because they want to go outside, are hungry, or just want to play.
Because howling is often a shrill, difficult-to-ignore noise, it’s easy to give in and do what they want. Unfortunately, this only positively reinforces that howling equals results, and the cycle continues.
Dogs that howl for attention can be challenging to deal with, especially on your own. Canine behaviorists are an excellent resource, which we’ll discuss in more detail below.
Not every attention-seeking behavior is bad, though. Some dogs reserve their howling as a way of letting their people know they’ve found something interesting. Hunting dogs are an excellent example of this, but all dogs have the potential to let out a little “cheer” when they’re excited and want to share it with you.
Dogs Howl at Certain Noises
Does your dog howl when an ambulance passes by the house or if the smoke alarm goes off? Your dog might think that high-pitched sounds like sirens or alarms are another dog trying to signal to them.
A 2020 study analyzing the acoustic characteristics of wolf howls found plenty of similarities between howling and sirens, which would explain why so many dogs have such an immediate response.
Ultimately, your dog howling at certain high-pitched noises is a sign that they are alert and responsive to the world around them. Although it may be annoying in the short term, it should stop as soon as the noise does, which makes it one of the easiest causes of howling to manage.
Dogs Howl as a Warning
One final answer to the question of “why does my dog howl?” is that they may be doing it as a warning of potential predators. Although we’re far more familiar with the other sounds a dog may make when acting aggressively (like a dog barking or growling, for example), howling may be another warning sound.
Again, this can be traced back to their ancestors. Wolves didn’t have clear visual territory boundaries like dogs do with houses and fences, so they often howled to warn other creatures away. Dogs may feel the urge to do the same thing, especially if they’re not feeling secure in their home.
How Should You Respond When Your Dog Howls?
If your dog is howling, how should you respond? Should you respond at all?
The key is to determine what is causing them to howl. As we discussed, there are many reasons a dog may be howling. Each reason needs a slightly different approach, so it is crucial to learn your dog’s behavior and be aware of their body language. Establishing your dog’s “normal” is an essential part of keeping your dog healthy and happy, physically and mentally.
The first step is to identify a trigger for the howling. If there is no obvious trigger, we recommend scheduling an appointment with your veterinarian to rule out any physical illness or underlying health concerns.
If your dog gets a clean bill of health, we recommend seeking the assistance of a certified professional dog trainer (CPDT). CPDTs are trained in canine behaviors and can help both assess the situation and provide you with the tools you need to change it. They may be able to recognize stimuli that you can’t, which can guide your approach to reducing your dog’s howling.
One tool for helping to alleviate behavioral issues like separation anxiety or howling is desensitization. With desensitization, the dog is exposed to their trigger, starting at an extremely low level.
As the dog becomes less reactive to their trigger, the levels increase. This technique is often paired with another called counterconditioning, which attempts to help change the way they feel about a stimulus by making the experience into a more positive one.
If mental stress is a possible trigger, talk to your vet about starting them on CBD + CBDA. CBD + CBDA can help support your dog’s cognitive function and help them manage both general and situational stress.
In addition, take steps to figure out what is stressing your dog out and change what you can — obviously, you can’t stop going to work, but you can find a way to reduce their separation anxiety, keep them safe, and decrease the amount of guilt you feel when you have to walk out the door.
The Bottom Line
Why do dogs howl? While the answer isn’t black and white, understanding the potential triggers and being aware of your dog’s usual behavior can help clue you into what may be causing it.
Ultimately, howling is a form of communication. Figuring out what your dog is trying to tell you can help you stop howling in its tracks, restoring peace to both your home and your pet.
The vocal communication of canines | Journal of Veterinary Behavior Clinical Applications and Research
Wolf Howling and Emergency Sirens: A Hypothesis of Natural and Technical Convergence of Aposematic Signals | PubMed
Canine separation anxiety: strategies for treatment and management | PubMed